On Confidence

“Strange about learning; the farther I go the more I see that I never knew even existed. A short while ago I foolishly thought I could learn everything – all the knowledge in the world. Now I hope only to be able to know of its existence, and to understand one grain of it. Is there time?” — Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

I have always been unsure of myself and the world around me. I’m even unsure of my unsureness. I don’t understand how any non-delusional person can truly be confident in anything — we know so little, and everything has some degree of uncertainty.

We should be humbled by the expanse of knowledge we don’t know and will never know, and learn to be content with what we have while wanting more. Our obsession with confidence must end because it is simply a method to look like we know what we’re doing, causing us to equate confidence with truth. Sure, presentation does matter, but content matters just as much.

At the same time, having the right level of confidence is important — too much, and your ego will explode; too little, and it’ll be hard to reach your full potential. But instead of trying to just “be confident,” we should strive for self-acceptance, compassion, and awareness. Confidence is just a byproduct of these qualities.

Skepticism cultivates curiosity, and questioning the status quo is the only way to improve. Confidence is settling. And I don’t ever want to settle.

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Reflection on School

* This will be part of a series of posts on education (since I have a ton of thoughts about this topic, having spent a lot of time in school). This post will mainly focus on my own experiences in the education system while a future post will be a more general critique of the educational system in the US. There will probably be some overlap and a lot of ranting.

I have no doubt learned a lot from school, and I’m deeply grateful to learn from teachers who genuinely care about their students and love what they’re teaching. As a student from one of the top public high schools in America, I really should have no reason to complain. I know many people would do anything to receive the quality of education that I get, and I am incredibly lucky to have all the opportunities I have. Despite this, there are a ton of flaws I see in my own experience with the educational system.

Back in the elementary school days, I loved school. I went to an amazing elementary school with compassionate teachers and kind peers. I got to do projects on dogs, learn about the Gold Rush, make a paper maché of California, do book reports, and more. I definitely didn’t feel like I was at my intellectual potential, but I did learn a lot about being a good person. However, when middle school rolled around, I found myself being extremely bored. God, did middle school have a ton of busy work. If I learned anything from doing the busy work in middle school, it was how to spend the least amount of time and effort completing assignments. There were a few years when I felt unfulfilled in math class, when history class consisted of answering worksheets and not really learning history, when my understanding of science stagnated. Although I still loved learning, I lost sight of the larger picture and what the point of education was. In hindsight, I wish I were homeschooled in middle school or at least took advantage of online courses in math.

Last year, I took a really fun math class (taught by an amazing teacher). We learned about eigenvalues and eigenvectors, group theory, types of infinities, probability using matrices, and more cool stuff. Many days, I would walk out of the class with my mind blown. That was when I realized that high school wasn’t just something I had to complete in order to get to the fun in college. I realized that I wanted high school to be a place where I would get my mind blown every day. I wanted a place that could challenge my beliefs, to teach me that everything I knew before was false. I wanted a place that excited me. The saddest part was, I realized a lot of my time in school was not spent that way — not getting my mind blown, not being excited. And it’s not the teacher’s fault if people don’t feel challenged — after all, it’s a lot of work to teach thirty kids with different learning styles and paces at once. The information itself was interesting, no doubt — it just wasn’t individualized enough.

Doing well in school has been something I expected from myself, but I don’t necessarily see that as a good thing. I’ve learned how to follow rules, almost to a fault. I became an excellent sheep, as William Deresiewicz would say. I cared about my grades too much, to the point of stressing out whenever I got an A-minus. And to what end? Does learning how to follow rules actually help in the “real world”? Not particularly. In A Separate Peace by John Knowles, the main character, Gene, said that he did better in school than his friend because his friend cared too much about learning. This offhand remark has stuck with me ever since and has made me more conscious about the purpose of school. I realized that I wasn’t courageous enough to disregard busy work and fail in things I didn’t particularly find useful. The irony — who thought doing well in school meant compromising one’s passion for learning? Now, I’m learning to balance: following the rules enough to do well, but not enough to compromise my excitement for school.

Most of the people who attend my school care a lot about what college they attend. While I’m glad that we see the importance in college, it can also get unhealthy. We’re caught in a push and pull, with everyone saying different things. There’s the school administration (or perhaps it was just that one administrator), who tried to convince us at every assembly that “college doesn’t really matter in the end, because I went to a not-so-good college, but look at how successful I am now!”. Then there are Asian moms who think that college is the only thing that matters (not trying to perpetuate stereotypes on Asian moms, but it’s probably true). The truth is in the middle. What a lot of people don’t understand is that college is merely a means to an end, not an end to a means. College is just a stepping stone: an important one at that, and one that will change you forever, but just a stepping stone.

You know all of those people who say that high school “doesn’t matter,” that you don’t start living until you graduate? They’re dead wrong. I think the most empowering thing I learned in high school is that you don’t have to wait to do what you love and become the best version of yourself. I’m still working on internalizing that, but I feel like a lot of high schoolers get deluded into thinking that they can only be their true selves after they graduate high school — that life starts after high school. But our lives started when we were born, and won’t stop until we die (what a revelation, right?). So do what you want to do, because this is your life. (Listen to No Such Thing by John Mayer, which touches on this subject!)

No one really tells you what the point of education is. We’re expected to go through it, without ever questioning why we’re spending most of our lives sitting in desks and listening to our teachers, taking tests every week. But I think the only way to truly learn and appreciate school is to question and critique the system. In the end, grades, test scores, etc., are just motivation to build character and aren’t what truly matters. What matters most is the character you build and the wisdom you acquire.

On Worrying

One of the hardest yet most rewarding lessons I’ve learned is to only invest energy into things I can or have the potential to change.

When I was small, my family called me the “little grandma” because I loved to worry. Worrying and processing the world around me gave me a sense of control — if I had more knowledge of the world around me, I felt safer in moving towards my goals. For most of my life, my tendency to tread lightly has served me well and it’s become a large part of who I am.

But this past couple of years, there have been moments when my thoughts would consume me. I would think about something and not be able to let it go, playing it over and over in my head until it became a part of my existence. Worrying was a way to cope with external changes, but I realized that this constant churning was too draining. What used to give me a sense of control started to control me.

On another, external note: there are a lot messed up things in this world. People and animals get tortured and die every second. There’s so much pain in this world, but worrying about them doesn’t change a thing. It’s okay and even necessary to feel deeply about these injustices once in a while, but we also have to remember that there’s a delicate balance between being selfish and protecting our own mental health and wellbeing. Sometimes being “selfish” and apathetic in the short-term gives us more power to fix things in the future.

I can’t change other people. I can’t move mountains by thinking. But I can take action. I can embrace uncertainty, find comfort in not knowing, and trust in those around me. Life is long enough that these worries will be insignificant in the context of my existence, but it’s also short enough that I need to seize and make the best use of every minute.

growth

If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning.   

 Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck

The desire for growth is so ingrained in our species that it has become the overarching purpose of all of our lives. Perfection is unattainable, but our journey from our current status to our visions of perfection is one of the most satisfying things we can ever do.

Once I realized that my whole life is a piece of art that I must meticulously craft with compassion, I began to see life as a process of beauty — a process towards strength and wisdom. When I look back on my life, I won’t care about the person I will be as much as the process that got me there.

Growth doesn’t have to be linear. It doesn’t have to always be in the perceived direction of “forward”; sometimes growth only comes from taking a few steps back or slowing down. But it does require us to be conscientious. It requires an admirable motive. It requires strength of will, resilience, and the ability to get up from setbacks.

Those qualities create the cornerstone of true wisdom and success. They are why — even with our ignorance, our indifference, and our false sense of superiority — I still have faith in the human race.

The World Is Malleable

When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and you’re life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family, have fun, save a little money.

That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.

Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.
– Steve Jobs

When I was younger, I lived in two worlds: the external world – sometimes scary, always new, and fast-paced; and my inner world – a network of ideas, emotions, and experiences. I felt more comfortable in my own mind, and I tended to value ideas and theorizing rather than dealing with the messy external world.

As I have matured both emotionally and intellectually, I am becoming less of an “observer” and more of a “doer,” and I’m learning to combine those two worlds. When I was younger, I focused on gathering ideas from books and the outside world. I loved reading about different topics in the library, but I never felt like using these ideas to create something in the external world. But now that I feel my ideas are becoming more developed, I am focusing on getting them into the world. Self-expression used to be a meaningless concept to me because I was content on living in my own little bubble. Now, it feels as if all of the thoughts and feelings in my head are overflowing, and I need the external world to absorb some of my ideas.

I’m sort of in a “creating” phase in which I am trying to build and make more things. And I don’t claim that creating is more important than observing and synthesizing, because without observation and synthesis, there would be no meaningful creations. But I do think I’ve pushed into the final phase of design: actually making stuff in the real world. I’ve gone through a significant paradigm shift in my life in which I am now trying to sculpt the world with the vision I have in my mind.

I believe our educational system is mainly to blame for brainwashing us into believing that life is about conformity, and about sitting in the sidelines rather than doing real things. In school, you are taught to obey the rules and to not cause too much havoc. Fit in, don’t stand out. Learn all of these things that dead people figured out because they know so much and you know nothing yet.

But then slowly, you realize that the way things are now don’t have to be how they are, and isn’t how it should be. You realize that your premises are not the stone walls that you knew so well, but flimsy, straw houses. You realize how easily these stone walls could have been some other structure had you been taught differently. You realize how complacent some people are — how unconsciously they live their lives, how they live like zombies following their masters. You realize that you want to live differently: with deliberation and a healthy dose of skepticism.

It’s dangerous to live without critical thinking skills and the knowledge that the world is malleable. That’s how dictators come into power, how a nation can be beguiled into committing genocide, and how one can be taken advantaged of. Because really, people who commit bad deeds aren’t inherently evil — they just don’t live consciously enough, and they don’t develop sound principles and push their vision into the world.

By consciously creating the world you live in, you have so much power — both in the world and over yourself. Yes, it may make you seem a little rebellious, but that’s what the world needs. The world can never be bettered through observation alone.

History Class Doesn’t Have to Be Boring

I find it surprising that AP US History is quickly becoming my favorite class this year. And that’s saying a lot, since all of my other classes are great and history class was always by far my most dreaded class.

I always knew that history was an interesting subject, but up until this year, it was taught in a way that was incredibly boring and disparaging of the subject. We would mostly do pure busywork, and only occasionally would I be truly interested in what we were learning. Now, after almost every class period, I walk out of the classroom thinking, Wow, who knew history could be this fascinating? I think school should be a place where I spend my time getting my mind blown rather than counting down the minutes until class is over, and I’m glad that this course is allowing me to do the latter. (Actually, I feel like APUSH would be more interesting if it covered some areas in more depth and increased class discussions, but I still think it’s significantly more interesting than any other history course I’ve taken.)

The main difference this year is that we’re looking beneath the surface to ask the Why and How. In all of my past history courses, we focused more and the Who, What, When, and Where. But since we learn the facts outside of class for homework, we get to spend class actually synthesizing and analyzing the information we learn at home. Taking this course made me realize how heavily history is based on cause-and-effect and why it’s so important to learn. It taught me that history is a truly beautiful map and a complex, interwoven, and fascinating story.

Knowledge is a tree, and in the past, my knowledge of history and politics was largely based off of the media and articles I read. These “little leaves” of information never gave me a complete understanding of how the world actually worked. Rather, this information, when taken alone, contorts our views on reality, giving us a false understanding of the world around us. To truly “know” any piece of information (in any subject), we must comprehend the whole tree, down to its roots, and understand how every part of the tree contributes to its overall structure. This is why we study history: in order to maneuver in the world we live in, we must also understand the roots of where we come from.

Another reason I am starting to love history is because it simultaneously emphasizes the importance of the little details and the big picture. I know people complain when we have to memorize “trivial details,” but it is these little details that makes history so interesting. And really, how detailed must details be to be considered “details”? Because for us, we consider things to be details when they make smaller impact on the outcome, but for people back then, those details were everything. Just like poetry, photography, science, politics, and pretty much any subject you can think of, it is these nuances that create substance. It’s not just the momentous decisions in our lives that define us, but the day-to-day details that build us up and determines our destiny.

I also find it fascinating how you can see that each culture had a prevalent mindset, or way of thinking, and how this mindset affected people’s actions. And I realized that it’s easy to see other cultures’ mindsets and how different they are between cultures, but it’s hard to see our own culture, simply because we’re so blinded by it. So I guess history teaches us how brainwashed we all are by society and allows us to judge the mindset of our culture against those in the past. It also teaches us about the fluidness of mindsets and how the basic beliefs we accept without question are not what have always been or will be.

I feel that at my school (or at least around the people I interact with on a daily basis), there is a definite devaluation of humanities classes. And I find it sad, because although I want to become an engineer and/or scientist when I grow up, I find that the humanities and the “soft skills” we learn are incredibly important in building character and teaching us how to think with different perspectives. These are skills that are vital not only for society but also for internal happiness, which is arguably all that really matters.

On a larger scale, I think it’s important for students to take a step back and understand the relevancy of what we’re learning, and how the subject ties into other seemingly unrelated disciplines. It’s our obligation as students to try to see the value in the topics we learn because the more we comprehend the importance of what we learn, the more we realize how miraculous our world is.